The long journey to understanding

The story of Jacob is every bit as beautifully written as that of Abraham, and even more subtly. Jacob is the younger of a pair of twins, and he deeply resents the fact that his brother is to inherit. With the help of his mother, he cheats his brother out of his inheritance. His brother is furious and Jacob runs for his life. Alone and sad, he lies down to sleep. He dreams that he is next to a ladder, and angels are climbing up and down it, to where God (and once again, it is God) is enjoying the cool of the roof of the world, just like a rich town dweller with his summer room on the roof of the house to catch the breezes. Jacob is comforted to know that this world connects with God’s. He goes on his way to find his uncle, where the trickster is tricked. He works for seven years to earn the woman he loves, and finds he has been married to her sister. It takes another seven years to earn his true love, and then he finds that being married to sisters, jealous and competitive, is not all it is cracked up to be.
When he has worked his way to a fine family, and is rich in flocks and herds, he sets off home. He is almost there, very near the place of his dream of ladder and angels, when he hears his brother, the brother he wronged, is coming looking for him. He trusts in his brother’s mercy to women and children, and also in his brother’s desire to break Jacob’s neck before wrecking vengeance on anybody else.
Once again, he is alone and afraid, just much older and with more to lose. He goes into the wadi. It is night. A stranger comes and wrestles with him. The stranger can hardly get the better of Jacob, until he puts out Jacob’s hip. Dawn is coming, and beginning to guess who the stranger is, Jacob demands his name, and a blessing from him. He gets the blessing, but rather than telling his own name, the stranger re-names Jacob ‘Israel’ which means ‘Strives with God’. Then the stranger goes, and Jacob calls the place ‘The face of God’ for he knows with whom he has fought.
See how Jacob’s understanding of God has grown: no longer a rich man sitting on his roof enjoying the air, now he is a person who is in the depths of a ravine, wrestling in the water and mud. It is a huge leap in understanding. Yet the most astonishing thing, the apex of the story is still to come.
The wronged brother Esau arrives. He is a much bigger man than Jacob has given him credit for being. Jacob starts off with propitiatory bowing, but Esau, the disinherited, wronged Esau, falls on his neck, weeping and embracing him. And then Jacob , who has spend the night with God, who glimpsed the face of God in the half light before dawn, Jacob says to the brother he has wronged: ‘Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.’
Each time I get to this point I sit back and consider how astonishing this insight is. I suppose it is not so very old. Depending on which theory you follow, it might belong to about the time of the Buddha, of Confucius, of the wonderful religious and creative flowering that still amazes with its depth and insight. It strikes me that this particular story equals most others. It is a deep creative story of a man learning to see ever deeper where he may find God: close to earth, in a desperate struggle in its darkest places, where he finds a God he can neither beat or be beaten by, and then, not in the faces of those who have wronged him, but in a harder place, the hardest place. He sees God is the person he has wronged. And this is the part of the Bible I am so often told is full of a God of wrath.


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